By any stretch of the imagination this is a very special
and also quite unusual CD. Not only is it full of relatively unknown
composers, it has one work that was written as a joint project between
six composers. Each musician is represented by one original work and
also his contribution to the joint project.
It is not necessary in this short review to give details
of Frederic Chopin or Franz Liszt. Their life stories and musical outputs
are well enough understood by most listeners. Although I will qualify
this by noting that probably three-quarters of Liszt’s work remains
virtually unknown to most people. It is only through Hyperion’s massive
cycle of the complete piano works of the master that we can begin to
evaluate the massive contribution he made to the pianoforte literature.
Chopin of course is well kent and better explored. Yet even this most
loved of composers is probably only really appreciated with a couple
of dozen works. It certainly bears thinking about.
However the names of Pixis, Herz, Czerny and Thalberg
will be closed books to most people who may happen to come across this
CD. Czerny, of course is common knowledge to pianists the world over
for his excellent studies. It was always said that if you can play all
his studies you could play anything. Even those of us who can only nibble
at the edges of these highly complex and technically difficult works
know what a wonderful pianistic style this forgotten composer had.
The CD opens with the great ‘Dante Sonata’ by
Liszt. This is an extremely popular piece of music and it deserves
to be. This piece is the last of the second book of the Années
de Pélerinage, which was dedicated to the composer’s ‘travels’
in Italy. It is well known that the Liszt was an enthusiast of the great
Italian author. And it is a meditation on the great themes and ideas
of this pivotal book that creates the form for this work. Of course
this is not a sonata in the accepted sense of the word, but a fantasy
in the style of a sonata. It is a tremendously important work that is
still played in recital rooms and is well represented on CD. However
this is a fine performance by Oleg Marshev. He is able to generate the
necessary passions and pathos to make this piece work. It is one of
my favourite pieces of Liszt and I am not disappointed with this rendition.
Johann Peter Pixis was not a great composer
by any stretch of the imagination. However he was one of the great piano
virtuosi of his day. In fact many people claimed he was on a par with
Liszt himself. Pixis wrote quite a bit of music including some operas,
symphonies, chamber music and a piano concerto. However it is for his
fantasies on tunes from the operas that he was perhaps most famous in
his day. It was the custom of the great pianists to make transcriptions
of all the most popular operatic arias. There was no wireless, of course,
and this was often the only way that the best numbers from the operatic
stage would get known by the general public. It is often told that the
great Verdi used to ensure that the hit numbers from his latest opera
were played by the orchestra at Florian's in St Mark’s Square within
minutes of the first performance in the Venice Opera House coming to
Transcriptions and fantasies are not flavour of the
month at the moment, although I think that they are beginning to be
appreciated a little more. Again this is largely because of the Liszt
cycle and perhaps a re-discovery of some the music of Sigismund Thalberg.
Pixis used themes from Rossini’s opera ‘The Siege
of Corinth.’ It is the elaboration of these relatively simple themes
into a robust pianistic style that makes them effective. The effect
is also achieved through the ability to write a piece that is in many
ways a free composition, yet gives the appearance of structural unity.
This work is stunningly played by Oleg Marshev. Any slight reservations
I may have had about this compositional form are removed by the sheer
pleasure of listening to his charming, accurate and enthusiastic playing.
A complex of adjectives perhaps – but this is a complex piece.
Henri Herz has given us a charming Grande
Valse. The programme notes advise us not to seek any profound meaning
in these pages. Yet this is not to criticise the composer’s ability
to produce an effective display of the pianist’s art. It is fun - and
it is well composed and well played fun. This composer produced some
eight pianoforte concerti that would probably deserve an occasional
airing. However it was as a pianist in the fashionable salons of Paris
that he was best appreciated. Naturally this led to a number of prestigious
teaching contracts. He travelled extensively abroad, including a tour
of Mexico, the U.S.A. and the West Indies. He invested his fortune made
by playing and teaching in piano manufacture and designed and built
a concert hall. He sounds a fascinating character - a footnote in the
history of nineteenth century music. I wish there was more available
about him and by him. Yet I romance – we have only two short works here
on which to form an opinion. They are both well played by Marshev.
We need say little of Chopin’s life and works.
The piece that is so wonderfully played on this disk is the charming
Barcarolle Op.60. This piece was composed in the winter of 1845
when Chopin had returned to Paris for the ‘season’. It is dedicated
to Baroness Stockhausen who was at that time a great society hostess.
She was the wife of the Hanoverian ambassador to France. This is one
of Chopin’s later works and it has charm all of its own. ‘Barcarolle’
of course, means a ‘boating song’ as perhaps sung by the gondoliers
in Venice. Here Chopin captures the rocking of the boat. Yet it is a
more serious piece than this. It is, to quote the liner notes, ‘a refined
study in rhythm and harmony, devoid of ostentatious display and superficiality.’
It is played in a truly magical manner on this recording.
I compared it to a number of other versions and I have to confess that
this is probably now my favourite!
The pianist and composer Sigismund Thalberg is
a name that is largely unknown to today’s generation of recital goers.
However in his day many critics saw him as a serious rival to the hegemony
of Franz Liszt himself. He was definitely a greater pianist than a composer;
there was never any real argument about that. Although his style of
composition differs considerably from that of the Hungarian master his
main contribution was to the literature for the pianoforte. There is
a piano concerto and a sonata. However most of his opus consists of
studies, transcriptions and other genre compositions popular in the
mid-nineteenth century. The Traviata fantasy is an excellent
example of his work. He does not attempt to give a chronological narrative
of the opera in this work. The music is all-important. He used themes
and extracts as he pleases. This results in a logical, well-structured
piece, which although in free form, has a sense of unity about it. This
piece is a great work and has been finely performed on this recording.
Carl Czerny, as I mentioned above is best known
for his didactic works. He occupied a mid-point in the development of
romantic piano music in the nineteenth century. He was a pupil of Beethoven
and taught Liszt. His catalogue of original compositions is vast. There
are over a 1000 works in every possible genre. For example he has 24
masses attributed to his name! Perhaps one day the works of this well-known
but little heard composer will be explored in a little more depth?
The charming work given here is based on a long forgotten
melody by a long forgotten composer - ‘La Ricordanza’ by Pierre
The main event of this CD is the great Hexaméron
– Morceau de Concert. It is not the place to give the whole story
of how this unusual composition was produced. However a few pointers
and facts will not come amiss.
The Italian Princess Belgiojioso was involved in agitation
for the Italian Liberation movement. In order to raise awareness of
this cause in the fashionable salons of Paris she asked six leading
pianists of the day to work together on a series of variations. She
appointed Franz Liszt as the coordinator of the project. The theme that
was chosen for the composition was the ‘Suona la tromba’ from the opera
I Puritani by Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835). This was seen to
be appropriate to the ‘cause.’ As planned, all the composers contributed
a section. However poor old Liszt was left with the task of expanding
the piece into a decent length with a number of his own ‘variations.’
In all there are eleven sections to this work – including an introduction
and the theme itself. Liszt wrote six of these sections. The work as
a whole actually hangs together well. The individual styles are perhaps
complimentary rather than similar. However the fact that Liszt wrote
over half of this music gives a deal of coherence. There are technical
difficulties in this piece and there are tender moments. Amid the pyrotechnics
we find a delicious ‘nocturne’ from the pen of Chopin. It is unnecessary
to analyse the work in detail for this review- save to say that it is
effective, satisfying and wholly consistent. It is an amazing achievement
both for the composers and for the pianist. It deserves to be better
known than it is.
The rumour that all six pianists assembled in Paris
to play this work in the presence of the patron seems to be untrue.
For reference purposes I give the full title of this piece: - Hexaméron,
Morceau de concert: Grandes Variationes Bravoure pour Piano sur la Marche
des Puritains de Bellini, composées pour le Concert de Mme la
Princesse Belgiojosi au Bénéfice de pauvres by Liszt,
with Sigismund Thalberg, Johann Peter Pixis, Henri Herz, Carl Czerny
and Frederic Chopin. Quite a mouthful!
This is a great CD. However the repertoire may put
some people off buying this album ‘on spec’. It is not the kind of CD
one would pick up in Tower Records and say to oneself – I’ll give this
a whirl," or "Father-in-law likes a bit of piano music…"
It is very much an example of a series of pieces for
the cognoscenti. And this is a pity. Any one of the short pieces in
the first half of the CD would be attractive to virtually anyone who
enjoys the piano repertoire. The Hexaméron may present
a problem because it is somewhat different to the normal course of musical
What I would say is that it is an excellent introduction
to the kind of music that may be making a minor comeback – the transcription
and the fantasies on forgotten and once popular themes.
The playing is stunning – but that is hardly surprising
for Oleg Marshev is one of the best pianists around at the moment.
As always with Danacord the CD is beautifully presented,
the sound quality is perfect and the programme notes are totally adequate.
Let us hope that this is the start of the recovery
of many fine works which have been lost to three or four generations
of concert-goers. I notice that Oleg Marshev has already recorded Pavel
Pabst’s Operatic and Ballet Paraphrases. So perhaps a start has
been made. If this present recording is anything to go by I look forward
to hearing them with great anticipation!